SHANGHAI — The rare face-to-face meeting between the leaders of the world's two largest economies will take place during what some are calling "the first superpower summit of the second Cold War".
On Monday, President Joe Biden will sit down for talks with Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the Group of 20 meeting in Indonesia.
The last time a U.S. president shook hands with the leader of China was more than three years ago. Donald Trump was in the White House, the COVID-19 pandemic was months away and relations between Beijing and Washington, while experiencing friction over trade, were on much firmer ground.
Today, trust is running low, the rhetoric is increasingly antagonistic and disputes continue to fester in areas including trade, technology, security and ideology.
Whether Biden and Xi can find any common ground in Bali is a huge question — and a reflection of the current state of relations.
Expectations are low in the U.S.
"There's not going to be a joint statement of any sort here. This is really not a meeting that's being driven by deliverables," a senior U.S. administration official told reporters this week. "The president believes it is critical to build a floor for the relationship and ensure that there are rules of the road that bound our competition."
The two leaders have talked by phone several times since Biden took office last year, but they have been unable to reverse — or even slow — the downward slide in ties between the world's two largest economies.
"I don't think one meeting is going to rescue or really even redefine the relationship," says Evan Medeiros, a professor at Georgetown University and former White House China advisor. "If they're lucky, if it goes well, maybe they can bend the trajectory a little bit."
Biden said on Wednesday his goal for the meeting is to get a deeper understanding of Xi's priorities and concerns, and "lay out what each of our red lines are."
Washington will be less flexible on Taiwan after the midterms
For China, there is no bigger issue than Taiwan. Beijing considers the self-governed island a part of China, and has vowed to unite it politically with the mainland — but it sees the U.S. as standing in the way.
"Those who play with fire will perish by it. It is hoped that the U.S. will be clear-eyed about this," Xi warned Biden over the summer, when the two leaders met virtually.
And in October, the Communist Party chief again reiterated that China's preference would be for "peaceful reunification" but repeated that the use of force remains an option.
Tensions spiked when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August. Beijing responded with sanctions and large-scale military exercises around the island.
Biden will likely seek to reassure Xi that Washington's long-standing policy regarding Taiwan has not changed, and that the United States does not support Taiwan independence. Analysts say Xi is likely to remain skeptical — particularly with the Republican Party projected to take control of at least the House of Representatives following the midterm elections.
"I think the Biden administration will be less flexible or maneuverable" on China, says Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University.
Changes in the U.S. Congress may complicate matters, he says.
"There's a great deal of Taiwan sympathy among the Republican hawks, so that's what I really feel very, very afraid of," he says.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has said he would like to visit Taiwan if he becomes majority leader. Such a move could be disastrous, warns another Chinese expert on international relations.
"When Pelosi went, the Chinese lost face. Next time, maybe they will just take action," says a Chinese expert on international affairs, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized by his university to speak to the media.
Cold War 2.0?
Biden's foreign policy has centered on countering perceived threats posed by China. The latest salvo came in early October, when the administration imposed export controls that prohibit the sale to China of cutting-edge microchips and the equipment used to make them.
Some hear echoes in this move of America's policy from half a century ago toward Moscow.
"Throughout the Cold War, there were a series of really tough export controls imposed on the Soviet Union by the U.S.," says Chris Miller, author of the recently published Chip War: The Fight for the World's Most Critical Technology. "There's really a lot of similarities, to be honest."
The U.S. says the latest export controls are designed to keep key technologies out of the hands of China's military and security agencies, but experts say they will have a broader impact.
"I think it's pretty clear that the controls kept the Soviet Union substantially further behind than it otherwise would have been," says Miller.
In China's case, enforcing the restrictions could be difficult, though. Microchips are small and easy to smuggle across borders. Also, total enforcement would require other countries that are part of the complex semiconductors supply chain to be on board, and that's a work in progress.
Beijing has voiced opposition to the move — and officials regularly decry what they call Washington's "Cold War zero-sum mentality." China has yet to take action in response, though. Analysts say that may be because the controls were announced at an awkward time for Chinese policy makers, days before a leadership reshuffle at the twice-a-decade Communist Party Congress.
A possible window of opportunity
If Biden and Xi can muster the political will, experts think the Bali meeting could realistically yield a commitment to opening more channels of communication.
In the wake of the Pelosi visit, Beijing cut three channels of dialogue and suspended cooperation in five other areas, including climate change. That came on top of already sharply curtailed contact between China and the United States.
The lack of communication is a serious and dangerous problem, says Scott Kennedy, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Kennedy visited China this fall and claims he is "the only think tanker from Washington that's been to China since the outbreak of the pandemic."
Under its controversial "dynamic zero" COVID policy, Beijing has effectively closed its borders to try to keep the virus out.
"With China, whether it's on Taiwan or interdependence in technology or our views of the international order — those have all been there. What divides us, has divided us for a while," Kennedy says. "But the lack of travel, the lack of direct communication, makes solving those problems almost impossible."
There is a window of opportunity "to take a little bit of a gamble," he believes, now that China's Party Congress and the U.S. midterm elections are over.
"It is an opportunity to focus on the strategic elements of the relationship without domestic politics hanging over every sentence," he says.
The leaders might consider expanding conversations about economics and trade, he suggests, or move toward the resumption of more normal travel.
But Zhu warns that nobody should expect too much from this summit. A sincere discussion may help deepen understanding between the two leaders, he says — but that's it.
"I think maybe there will be some sort of, at a maximum, common ground where some sort of understanding could widen," he says.
Medeiros, the former U.S. official, says the current moment is dangerous — and in some ways, similar to the 1950s and early 1960s, when mistrust grew between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and they each "tested and probed" each others' boundaries.
"After the Cuban Missile Crisis, both sides, because of that incredibly searing experience, internalized the belief that strategic restraint, often institutionalized through things like arms control agreements, was in their mutual interests," he says.
But now, he says, "There is no such consensus between Washington and Beijing."